Monday, April 4, 2011

Cropsey (2009)

Cropsey is a 2009 documentary that tells the story of alleged child murderer Andre Rand, a "drifter" from Staten Island who was found guilty of kidnapping two young girls and was suspected of murdering a number of other Staten Island children throughout the 70s and 80s. Though widely believed to be responsible for the deaths, there was insufficient evidence for a murder conviction, and so Rand was only brought up on charges of kidnapping. Cropsey attempts to uncover the facts behind the cases and above all asks whether Rand really was guilty or merely a scapegoat for the Staten Island community.

From reading a brief synopsis of Cropsey, I had high expectations. The raw materials are there for an intense, absorbing documentary, but one thing to bear in mind before watching Cropsey is that it takes a somewhat... odd approach towards the subject matter. See, I was new to all of this, but apparently "Cropsey" is an urban myth in Staten Island, a crazed killer that roams the grounds of an abandoned mental hospital and kills kids who stray out at night. For some reason Cropsey preoccupies itself with this myth, which harms the film a great deal.

Thing is, I have a fairly thin skin when it comes to documentaries. Any hint of sensationalism or bias and I'm out, instantly. Though Cropsey is for the most part unbiased, it is at times unbelievably sensationalist. Trying to make the link between the legend of Cropsey and an alleged real life killer is pointless - and it doesn't help that the filmmakers repeatedly bring the comparison up throughout the film. "That was the summer that the kids in Staten Island discovered that the urban legend was real" says director Joshua Zeman, hyperbolising like his life depends on it.

So much of the movie is geared towards creating an atmosphere of dread that it becomes really irritating after a while. The soundtrack is basically lifted straight from a horror movie, and there are a number of ridiculous scenes where the filmmakers wander around the abandoned Willowbrook school (where Rand was a caretaker) in darkness, honestly looking like they were taken straight from an episode of "Most Haunted". Why on earth would you film a documentary at night? For one thing, you can't see shit guys. The most cringeworthy part of the film is during one of these scenes, where the two filmmakers have a "No, don't go in there"/"Well, I'm not scared, I'm going in" exchange that seems so blatantly staged I could hardly believe what I was seeing. I've read a number of reviews praising Cropsey for it's creepy atmosphere, but it's a documentary - it's not supposed to have an "atmosphere", or try to fabricate one. It's supposed to present the facts.

The most frustrating thing about Cropsey is that when Zeman and partner Barbara Brancacci lay off the bullshit, it's honestly fascinating. The abundance of great archive footage and odd real-life characters make me wonder why the filmmakers felt they needed to go for that tacky urban myth angle at all. Knowing very little about Rand, I was genuinely immersed in the story, and I just wish I could have seen a more straight documentary on the subject. I don't want to totally dismiss Zeman and Brancaccio's efforts because there is definitely a lot on offer here, but this wouldn't be the first documentary I've seen where the filmmaker tries too hard to stamp the film with their own identity.

Even though it sounds like I'm slating Cropsey, I still would recommend checking it out simply because there is a great story there. However, it's telling that the most powerful section of the film (for my money) is lifted straight from another documentary, made by none other than TV's Geraldo, on the horrendous conditions at Willowbrook school in 1972. I acknowledge Zeman and Brancaccio's work in the sense that I did learn about something that I found hugely interesting - but if you can find a documentary on Rand that's a little more "straight", I'd take that over Cropsey.

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